Reading Torah Multidimensionally

Alex Braver
February 19, 2013
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I live with a multidimensional relationship to my Judaism.  On the one hand, I live a fairly traditional life, I read texts from the rabbinic tradition and make personal and spiritual meaning from Jewish rituals.  Yet on the other hand, I see a human hand in the tradition’s formation.  I learn about Torah from a critical academic perspective, and see how the development of Judaism over time has been influenced by contemporary cultural attitudes.  Sometimes, this multidimensionality can be overwhelming–how can I read about the Biblical authors borrowing ideas from ancient Sumeria while continuing to live a Jewishly observant lifestyle and reciting “This is the Torah that Moses put before the children of Israel, by the mouth of God, by the hand of Moses”?  How can I make a homiletical drashah on a verse that I know reflects an Ancient Near Eastern reality far different than the one my sermon suggests?

I am happy to live in this tension because it feels truest to me.  I find it possible only because of love.  Like one who sees the faults in their partner and learns to love them more deeply for it, I think I’ve learned to love Judaism and Torah because I’ve learned to see them critically, not in spite of that fact.  I try to face the tradition academically and rabbinically, to be willing to say what is historically true, and also to say what feels even more true than historicity.

Similarly, I try to acknowledge parts of Judaism that are difficult or troubling (for example, around issues of gender, sexuality, and interfaith relations) while also being willing to re-read them sympathetically rather than discarding them.  The relationship metaphor applies here too: deluding ourselves into not seeing faults in our partners is not love.  It is asking for disaster.  But learning to see our partners in the truth of their humanness, and also learning to simultaneously see the best that is in them, can be the beginning of real love.

The Song of Songs is written in the style of other similar ancient, secular romantic poetry.  This is its historical truth.  And yet, a major stream of the rabbinic tradition chooses to read the Song of Song’s graphic sexual imagery as a metaphor describing the relationship between God and Israel.  The academic view might find this assertion laughable–it seems clear that the original intent of the poem was not primarily metaphorical.  The rabbis were wrong.  And yet this misses the genius and creativity of their approach, of their decision to integrate the divine into a story about human sexuality.  They took an important but controversial document, and re-read it in a way that made sense to their religious sensibilities.

Our challenge, like the rabbis, is to take our holy texts and read them in ways that make them meaningful to us, while at the same time being able to read them critically and historically.  Otherwise, we are just reading one-dimensionally.

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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